President Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as President, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.

How Trump’s ‘dangerous state of mind’ in wake of Capitol riot could harm US national security

The breaching of the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Wednesday could have serious implications for US relations with China, Russia and Iran, says Michèle Flournoy, a US defense policy expert.

The World

How was one of the most secure buildings in the world infiltrated so easily?

That’s the question many are grappling with in the aftermath of the ransacking of the US Capitol on Wednesday by a pro-Trump mob.

The story is bigger than just one building, though. Wednesday’s incident raises questions about broader American national security.

The World’s host Carol Hills asked Michèle Flournoy to weigh in on this. She was the undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration.

Related: In pictures: Trump loyalists storm US Capitol

Carol Hills: Michèle, first of all, in a post 9/11 context, how was this mob able to pull this off?  

Michèle Flournoy: It’s really quite stunning and quite a disgrace. It was no secret that President Trump had called for this rally on the day that the Congress was going to validate the Electoral College votes, that he was going to stir up his followers at the rally, and he actually encouraged them to march up to the Capitol.

What’s mystifying is why was that not planned for and prepared in advance? I think that will have to be the subject of some investigation.

But I would think even without additional planning, that security would be too tough for a mob to breach it, especially post 9/11.

You would think so. I’ve certainly gone through Capitol Hill security countless times, and I actually have an artificial hip and that sets off the metal detectors every time. So, how they got overwhelmed — it really is a mystery. It’s terrible mismanagement and a terrible failure that I think has created one of the worst moments in the history of our democracy to have the Capitol, you know, the heart of our democracy, overrun by an angry, violent mob.

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According to recent reports, in the days and hours ahead of the mob that stormed the Capitol building, Capitol police leaders turned down resources and offers of support from the Pentagon and the FBI. But can the Pentagon or the FBI step in independently based on their own intelligence?  

I mean, that’s a good question. Usually, the deference is to the Capitol police, but I think the DC police also had a key role to play. And I know that the mayor was begging for assistance from both federal law enforcement and the National Guard, and it took quite a number of hours for those requests to be responded to.

My biggest worry, Carol, is how the world sees this beyond what happened here at home, which is terrible enough. But this really sends a terrible signal to the rest of the world.  

What are the potential things that could be stoked in these waning days from outside the US, from countries that aren’t so fond of us?  

I think the top concern has been actions by Iran. We are around the one-year anniversary of the killing of the head of the Iranian Republican Guard, Gen. Soleimani. You know, I think that that anniversary has raised concerns that Iran might try to assassinate a US official traveling in the region or attack US assets or embassies in the region. That hasn’t happened so far. I think US forces have been put on alert in the region to watch for that. But if they believe that we are consumed internally, that might encourage them.

I think longer term, the biggest concern I have is with China and Russia. They both like to perpetuate and proliferate this narrative of US decline, and you can be sure that the news, state-run media in both countries, are running the clips of the insurrection and the mob violence on the Capitol over and over and over again — not only to undermine US credibility but to discredit democracy itself. And that’s a very harmful impact.  

Related: After excusing violence, Trump acknowledges Biden transition

How about within the White House, possible things that could go wrong there or possible provocations or errors President Trump could make given his access to sensitive information, the nuclear codes, et cetera?  

I think the biggest danger is that he tries to change the subject and kind of be the tough guy by ordering some kind of military action somewhere. With his state of mind in this president, given his unpredictability and his willingness to put his own interests ahead of the United States interests, you can’t rule that out as a possibility.   

It’s interesting you mention that because there were reports that some people inside the Trump administration are concerned about the president’s state of mind and what he might do in the remaining days of his presidency, like tampering with classified information. Are you concerned about that?   

I am. I mean, we’ve just witnessed a US president for the first time in history incite insurrection and violence on the United States Capitol. This is a person who is not in the right frame of mind to be president of the United States and unable to act in the best interests of the country rather than just what he perceives to be his own best interests. And I think that’s what has caused some commentators to raise the prospect of invoking the 25th Amendment, others saying he should go down to Florida and stay there and delegate powers — that the remaining powers of the presidency go to Pence for the duration. But this is a man who has clearly demonstrated he’s in a very dangerous frame of mind.

Related: ‘I fear for our democracy,’ says Rep. Mondaire Jones in calling for Trump’s removal

What do you think should be done over the next 12 days? What steps do you think should be taken or would make you feel better?  

I would like to see him step back and delegate as much power as possible to Vice President Pence. I would like to see leadership in Congress, particularly the Republican leadership, come out much more strongly in its effort to constrain his action. This is about preserving our democracy and protecting it. That should guide all of our actions. I will say one silver lining, you know as badly battered and beaten up as the institutions were —the truth is the system held. The members came back. They did the work of the people. They validated the results of the election, and now it’s well understood that Joe Biden will become the president on Jan. 20. So, the system did have the strength and resilience to go forward. But, boy, we have a lot of repair work to do going forward.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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